If you have ever written a conference proposal and gotten rejected, then you’ve probably been left wondering why your proposal was not selected over others. Writing a successful conference proposal continues to be a daunting task for us as teaching professionals. Whats more, the feedback we receive on rejected proposals is often written in cryptic commentaries that provide little to no direction on how to better successfully meet future proposal expectations. We know that the work that we do both in and out of the classroom is valuable and can help make a difference in our field when shared with others, but the conference proposal for many of us continues to be a murky genre navigate.

In this blog post, I’ll cover share some of the genre expectations behind the conference proposal and provide you with some tips on writing one. This post is written with a nod to a Swalsian genre analysis perspective of the conference proposal in that it attempts to identify the major moves of the genre.

  • Indicate the structure/format of your presentation. It is important that you indicate to your reviewer what they can expect to occur in your presentation. Think of this like a loose outline of a lesson plan. If your presentation is more of a workshop, then identify what the main activities your participants will be doing. If it is more of a paper presentation where you are presenting a particular teaching practice(s), then indicate how the various sections of your presentation will be divided. Don’t get too specific, but at least commit two to three sentences to helping your audience understand that you have made a detailed plan for your presentation. Use some of those sequence transition phrases you’ve been teaching your listening/speaking students to use when giving the introductions of their academic presentations.
  • Integrate major approaches and terminology in the field that aligns with your presentation. This may mean you need to dust off that methods book from graduate school, make a visit to INTO OSU’s professional development library or browse through a recent publication of TESOL Quarterly (or another relevant journal in the field) through OSU’s library database. The key here is to refer to an approach or sub-discipline of the field that helps your reviewer place how your presentation fits within the interest section and/or session type you are submitting your proposal to, and for that matter, the field of language teaching and research as a whole. Are you submitting your proposal to the English for Specific Purposes interest section? Then what buzzword/term would you use to help place your presentation? Is there a framework or approach that is often referred to within the area of language English teaching or research that you are presenting on? In my recent TESOL proposal, for example, I mentioned in my title the phrase “Business English” to help place my presentation within a subset of English for Specific Purposes, which is the interest section I submitted my proposal to. By narrowing the focus of your presentation and being more specific with the approaches and terminology that aligns with your presentation, you help distinguish your proposal from the more general content and areas that are likely to see the most submissions. Your reviewer should be able to see that your presentation fits clearly within a specific niche within the field of TESOL or Applied Linguistics.
  • Identify a research/teaching gap. This is where you place the importance of your presentation within the field. There are generally two ways of accomplishing this. One way is by referring to current research citing that there is a problem area or lack of some type. Research studies in teaching listening, for example, might indicate that we need more ways of teaching listening strategies in our English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses, but that teachers lack training and materials for helping them accomplish this. You can cite a recent study in a major journal that supports this gap, then follow this up by mentioning that your presentation fills this gap through your demonstration of listening strategy instruction. This is what I like to think of as filling the research gap. The second way is the inverse of the first. Instead of research indicating that there is a gap, you use your own teaching context as support for the gap. A recent research study might indicate the importance of using corpus driven vocabulary materials in the classroom, yet your own experience in creating and using these materials in the classroom might demonstrate that students often don’t view these materials as important for language learning, and what’s more, teachers lack the training to use and create these materials. Your action research presentation on designing on implementing corpus driven vocabulary materials fills this teaching gap by showing how these difficulties can be addressed and (hopefully) overcome. Thus you are filling the teaching gap with your presentation. The key with this move is to make reference to one recent study that justifies a need for your presentation, showing in the process that there is a disconnect/gap between theory (research) and practice. I’ve generally seen most conference proposals only make use of one to two in-text citation references. I would error on the side of using a more recent article in the field than a dated seminal one, unless it connects directly to the approach you are taking (see previous point).
  • Describe what your audience can expect to get from your presentation. This is an easily overlooked aspect of a conference proposal. We can get so focused on what we will cover in our presentation and how it connects with pedagogy that we forget the perspective of our audience. When our audience leaves the presentation, what will they walk away with? Will they come away with a new teaching tip that they can easily integrate into the EAP reading/writing classroom? Or will attendees come away with an understanding how a specific approach to content-based instruction be applied to teaching Business for English for Specific Purposes? This is usually the last part of the conference proposal, but it is vitally important in helping your reviewers understand that you have carefully considered how your presentation can contribute to the field and attendees. I like to think of this section as the conference attendees’ version of learning outcomes and objectives. In a 2016 TESOL presentation that I collaborated on with Lauren Funderburg, we included this last line in our proposal help describe the takeaway for reviewers: “Attendees will leave the presentation with handouts outlining TED Talk related tasks and activities, our choice of TED Talks designed to fit specific language learning objectives and criteria and steps for the digital curation of TED Talks.” You want to limit the use of personal pronoun and focus on the audience as the subject.

In addition to considering some of the rhetorical moves described here, it is important to carefully consider the interest section, content section or thread that you are submitting to. Some areas tend to get much more submissions than others. Pick up a recent catalog of presentations or look up some of the past sessions online, then you can see what sections get the most submissions. Try  to tailor your presentation to fit within one of the sections that often sees less submissions. If you do end up submitting to one of the more saturated content areas, be sure your presentation is novel and strong enough to stand alone from the rest of the herd.


Related Links:

This past March I attended the TESOL 2017 conference in Seattle. While there, I sat in on many sessions, focusing mainly on vocabulary, reading comprehension, and practical activities for the classroom. One of the best research-focused sessions that I went to was by Scott Douglas from the University of British Columbia. He was presenting on the lexical needs of University bound ESL students in order to be successful with the reading and writing demands of their studies. I found this session to be eye opening and very engaging because I had never before thought about vocabulary in terms of word families needed or the fact that the vocabulary needs for reading may differ from the vocabulary needs for writing. Below I give a brief summary of the main points of his presentation. If you find it interesting and want to learn a bit more or discuss it further, I will be presenting the information at the Winter 2018 PED as well as adding the full reference list from the presentation to this post.

As we are all aware, students need to learn a lot of vocabulary to be successful at the University level in the U.S. (and I am sure other countries), and the words that they need to learn are not static; they change depending on a variety of things. Therefore, students need to be aware of whole word families as well as the many different meanings one word can have.

A typical college bound 18-year-old in the U.S has around 18,000 word families at their disposal (Nation, 2001) and they learn +/- 5,000 more during their undergraduate studies (Zechmeister et al., 1995). While this is a daunting number of word families, fortunately, ESL students do not have to learn this many to be successful in their own studies. This is because of the Lexical Frequency Principle, which basically means that some words are used more often than others, so students should focus on those higher frequency words first.

The General Service List (GSL) and the Academic Word List (AWL) are both word family lists that help teachers and students focus on the word families that are used most often in English. Together they make up the first 2,570 word families that students should learn/are taught. Also, together they make up around 86% of the words in an average academic text. 86% sounds like a god portion of a text, right? However, to be successful with reading comprehension, without getting frustrated and discouraged, one needs knowledge of around 98% of the text (Hu and Nation, 2000; Nation, 2001). This is for fully independent reading without the aid of an instructor and students would need to know around 8,500 word families. With a good instructor and some classroom help students still need to know around 95% of the text for good comprehension to occur, which is around 4,500 word families. To break this down further the following bullet list shows how often a student would need to look up a word in the dictionary at the varying word family levels:

  • 2,570 Word Families (The Struggle Level)
    • Encounter an unfamiliar word ≈ 1 in 7 times (86%)
  • 4,000 – 5,000 Word Families (The Instructional Level)
    • Encounter an unfamiliar word ≈ 1 in 20 times (95%)
  • 8,000 – 9,000 Word Families (The Independent Level)
    • Encounter an unfamiliar word ≈ 1 in 50 times (98%)

(Douglas, 2013)

Now let’s look briefly at vocabulary thresholds for writing. Knowledge of vocabulary is important for writing because it has been shown that low rated writing is usually partnered with simple vocabulary. How often students need to look for a word and how many ways a student knows how to write about the same information directly impacts their writing scores. With the GSL and the AWL students will have 94% of the vocabulary needed for a well written academic essay. This is lower than the reading threshold which may be why students at INTO are often struggling more with their reading than their writing scores. The following bulleted list shows the levels for how often a student would need to stop writing to look up a word in the dictionary while completing an academic assignment:

  • 2,000 Word Families (Struggle Level)
    • Stop writing ≈ 1 in 8 times to search for a word (88%)
  • 3,200 Word Families (Instructional Level)
    • Stop writing ≈ 1 in 20 times to search for a word (95%)
  • 5,300 Word Families (Independent Level)
    • Stop writing ≈ 1 in 50 times to search for a word (98%)

(Douglas, 2013)

The chart below summarizes the thresholds together (as cited in Douglas, 2017)

Word Families Reading Writing
2,000 76% 88%
2,570 86% 94%
3,000 95%
4,000-5,000 95%
5,000 98%
8,000-9,000 98%
12,000 100% (est.)
14,000 100% (est.)

In sum, vocabulary proficiency with students can directly impact their ability to be successful in their university studies. While vocabulary is just one thread of many in overall language proficiency, it is helpful for our own instruction to be aware of students’ vocabulary needs for their future endeavors. This information can help us come up with realistic goals and practical guidelines for reaching the level of vocabulary coverage students need (Douglas, 2017). Most importantly, teachers should focus on the automatization of the word families below the Struggle Level thresholds in order to help free up students’ cognitive space and help them engage in the lessons, whether the task is reading or writing.

Full Reference list from TESOL 2017 presentation:

  • Brynildssen, S. (2000). Vocabulary’s influence on successful writing: ERIC Digest D157. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication. (ERIC Document Service No. ED446339). Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED446339.pdf.
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  • Cobb, T. (2016). Compleat Lexical Tutor v.8. Retrieved from http://www.lextutor.ca/
  • Cobb, T. & Horst, M. (2001). Reading academic English: Carrying learners across the lexical threshold. In J. Flowerdew & M. Peacock (Eds.) Research Perspectives on English for Academic Purposes (315-329). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Collier, V.P. (1987) Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes. TESOL Quarterly 21, 617– 641.
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  • Coxhead, A. & Nation, P. (2001). The specialised vocabulary of English for academic purposes. In J. Flowerdew & M. Peacock (Eds.), Research Perspectives on English for Academic Purposes (pp. 252-267). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Writing a conference proposal can be a daunting experience for teachers, especially for those of us who have never written one before. Even after reading through a call for proposals, a number of questions often remain for the proposal writer. Below are some resources provided by TESOL members on what makes a successful proposal and are a great place to start after you’ve read through a call for proposals for an upcoming conference.